Interview Christopher Burr
- Saturday 1 December 2001
Amid much gossip – some true, some not – Christopher Burr MW stepped out of Christie's to create Uvine, his internet wine stock exchange. JOHN STIMPFIG delves behind the rumours for the truth.
If anyone can take succour from the Chinese proverb, 'may you live in interesting times', it must be Christopher Burr MW. Three years ago, from the relatively quiet security of running fine-wine shippers, Mentzendorff, he leapt into the frying pan as international wine director at Christie's. Not for long. Last year, after a turbulent tenure, he jumped again, setting up Uvine, a controversial internet stock exchange for wine. And though he gets a bit bored when things are just ticking over, even he must pine for a slightly quieter working life.
And possibly a less public one too. Not least because the move from Christie's to Uvine remains the subject of much rumour and gossip in wine circles. Some suggest his time at Christie's was far from a roaring success, while others are dismissing Uvine as fly-by-night cowboys, charlatans and worse. Mind you, both Burr and Uvine did get some serious column inches out of all this. So it hasn't been all bad.
Burr was understandably hurt by some of the tittle-tattle. 'I'm not that thick-skinned and some unpleasant things were said. However, most of the rumour- mongering was utter rubbish and not worth responding to,' he says. 'In the end, all you can do is follow your convictions and try to prove your detractors wrong.'
He also believes that many critical comments about Uvine stemmed from commercial pique. 'I can only think that our detractors felt threatened and were frightened we'd take business from them. What annoys me is that it was the same situation when the brokers muscled in 20 years ago. Now they're the establishment and we're the new kids on the block. People have short memories.'
It's ironic that Burr has come in for such stick from sections of the trade because, at heart, he's one of them. As his slightly generous Pickwickian appearance suggests, he's a sociable sort, especially over a good lunch and a great bottle. His former colleague at Mentzendorff, Nick Adams MW, describes him as one of the trade's last real characters. 'Basically he's an old-fashioned bon viveur. It's impossible to sit around a table with Christopher and not have a good time.'
Yet in spite of the bright red braces hitching up his pinstripes, he's no old fogey. Friends describe him as clever, quick and enthusiastically infectious in all his pursuits and passions, which include music, wine and work. Most of all, he's always up for a challenge and embraces new ideas with gusto.
On to his CV. The first wine trade entry was a sort of apprenticeship with Alexis Lichine in the early 1970s when Burr did everything from cellar rat to buyer. After that, he joined Bass' wine subsidiary and began running bottling lines in London's East End, which enabled him to woo his Canadian girlfriend at the Savoy Grill and Le Gavroche. Despite his dozing off once or twice between courses, Joanna married him, to Burr's relief. 'She's been a huge support ever since, especially when things got tough at the office,' he says.
After various jobs in marketing and inventory, it was rapidly onwards and upwards to board level with Hedges & Butler. But the brewers never understood the wine business and weren't prepared to tolerate returns of 2–5% when beer brought in 20%. So Burr took a surprise 'backward' step, becoming a beer salesman.
Resuming his fast-track management career, by the late 1980s he'd become Bass' European director. But he returned to wine after being headhunted to run Robert Drouhin's export arm.
'Although the business was struggling, I had plans to turn it round,' he says. These included bolting on blue-chip agencies like Chapoutier and Mondavi and turnover quickly quadrupled to £4–5 million in three years. However, a deep recession drained it of cash and a merger was required. In 1993, while doing his MW, Burr set up a marriage with Mentzendorff, got the MD job and set about putting the business into profit.
Now that Burr was back in the fine wine fold, with an MW to his name, he was being noticed as an ideas man who could also make things happen. Which is why Christie's knocked on his door in 1998.
He arrived armed with 'four or five radical, good ideas', which he believed would reinvigorate the auction house's fortunes. Controversially though, they went beyond live auctioneering – with some using IT to leverage the Christie's brand. 'They were eating into the bottom line. We had to think about other ways of developing the business.'
Not everyone in the Christie's Wine Department was at one with the strategy. According to Burr: 'Every day, someone told me we hadn't done it that way before. At times, it was like wading through porridge.'
Then Chris Davidge, Burr's boss and corporate protector, resigned in the light of the commission-fixing scandal with Sotheby's. Burr was effectively on his own. Any ideas associated with the Davidge era were off the agenda as Christie's closed ranks and retreated. 'They told me to put everything on hold and just run it. Except this wasn't what I had been brought in to do. It was time to leave.'
And off he went to join an unknown, untried internet start-up. Again, it wasn't exactly the easy option and it represented a considerable career risk. But Andrew Halstead, Uvine's entrepreneurial CEO, convinced him to come on board as chairman. 'The stock exchange model was very compelling because it offers the benefits of broking, auctioneering and more.' Another attraction was the funding behind the project. So when Burr named his price, Halstead didn't even blink.
It's now over a year since Uvine began trading and, of course, not everything has gone according to plan. 'We've made our mistakes and learnt from them,' admits Burr. For instance, Uvine has pruned its cost base, and is now open for business on the phone and fax rather than just online.
It's also involved itself, controversially, in a bout of market-making, particularly with the 1997 Bordeaux vintage. With the power to take significant margins from the middleman to deliver lower prices, it's no wonder Uvine's not universally popular with some in the wine trade who may, ultimately, be forced out of existence. Not that Burr's too bothered. 'If people turn stock and add value in the distribution chain, they'll do well. If they don't they'll find it harder. Our job is to make the market more competitive and deliver the best market prices. That's good for us, good for our clients and good for the industry in the long term,' he asserts.
If Uvine does continue to succeed, Burr will no doubt regard the auctioneering interlude as an interesting blip on his CV. Not that he's remotely defensive about it. 'From a turnover, growth and client base point of view, we did very well at Christie's. I don't, however, view my stewardship as a personal success because I wasn't able to force through the necessary changes to make a difference. And that was due to the circumstances, the timing and the people.' With Uvine it's already looking like an altogether different story. And, as far as Christopher Burr MW is concerned, one with a much happier ending.
John Stimpfig is a Decanter contributing editor.
ABOUT CHRISTOPHER BURR
Born: August, 1951
Education: Bedford School, Royal
College of Music and then the City of London Business School
Life Partner: Joanna
Children: Two sons, aged 24 and 20
Career: Burr's first job was with Alexis Lichine in the early 1970s, followed by Bass, Hedges & Butler, Domaines
Drouhin, Mentzendorff, two years at Christie's and finally CEO of Uvine
Home: Notting Hill, London
Hobbies: Music, opera, ballet, 'shooting', horse racing, food and always drinking
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